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Philosophers-for-hire, or modern day courtiers?



  Commentary: Thus, just as the physician's aim ought to be men's health, so the Courtier's ought to be his prince's virtue. – Castiglione, Fourth Book of the Courtier

A campus of the University of Wisconsin announced in March that it would eliminate 13 majors in the humanities and social sciences – including majors like English, history, and philosophy. Instead, the school would expand majors and programs associated with “high-demand career paths.”

Although protests and national media attention persuaded the campus to rethink this move, this is the direction in which higher education has been led for years, with a strong push by corporate leaders toward productive and profitable majors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

We see this in our secondary and elementary schools as well, with civics, English, and the arts slashed in favor of STEM.

This is neither good nor bad, but it does illustrate a particular view of education and human purpose. If education is viewed primarily as a means of producing a workforce useful to capital – and it is – then it is hard to make a case for the humanities. As Justin Stover wrote last year, “The justification for the humanities only makes sense within a humanistic framework.”

The tension between this notion of “education” and the requirements of business is not new. At least as long ago as 1863, Thoreau observed:

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!

Some argue for the humanities’ transcendent value: they plead that literature, philosophy, art history, and polyglotism make life meaningful and beautiful at any station in life, for any social class.

Other humanists, seeing how society is run, assure the investor class that the humanities produce good workers. “Critical thinking!” they exclaim (as if most corporations really want to be interrogated by critical minds among their ranks). “Creative problem-solving! Communication skills!”

An ambitious subset of the latter camp has recognized a marketing opportunity. While the University of Wisconsin pondered dropping the humanities, the Guardian ran a flattering piece about a growing cohort of “entrepreneurial philosophers” renting themselves to corporations.

Corporate executives, said philosophy professor Lou Marinoff, “are very intelligent people who are also overworked, more so than most of us. And they don’t have enough time to reflect.”

Over two decades, Marinoff has built a market for philosophical consulting services and created the board that certifies the consultants. The licensure ain’t cheap. Socrates, if we believe Plato, did not accept money for his teaching, yet a two-day training in Socratic dialogue at the American Philosophical Practitioners Association will run you $600. A three-day certification course costs $900 to $1,200.

Who said there was no money in philosophy?

Will the outsourcing of moral reason and contemplation to intellectual contractors help ExxonMobil understand why it should not suppress knowledge about climate change, or help Facebook accept responsibility for its impact on civic life, or Monsanto to interrogate the copyrighting of seeds? Will it lead, as Marinoff hopes, to permanent staff positions for philosophers? Either way, it’s a living.

The providers of meditation, yoga, philosophy, and other humane arts tailored for the board room, to win the minds and favor of corporate princes – these are the courtiers of late-stage capitalism.

Algernon D'Ammassa writes the Desert Sage column for the Deming Headlight and Las Cruces Sun News. Share your thoughts at adammassa@demingheadlight.com.